The Ultimate Guide To Hiking With Your Dog

November 04, 2020
Arden Blumenthal, Conservation Dogs Program Assistant
New York-New Jersey Trail Conference

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The Ultimate Guide To Hiking With Your Dog
Skipper. Photo by Arden Blumenthal.

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Thinking about hitting the trail with your pup this fall?

Keep reading for some must-have tips from our Conservation Dogs Program Assistant before you get out there. 

Choose the right trail.

As with all outdoor activities, the adventure begins before you’ve even arrived at the trailhead. Planning is an essential part of the hiking experience and is even more important when you’re bringing your dog. If you’re new to hiking with your dog, the key is to start slow. Chances are, your first hike wasn’t the 14-mile trek up and down Mt. Marcy, so it shouldn’t be your dog’s!

Begin by choosing an easier hike with limited mileage and more even terrain. Slowly build duration and hike difficulty from there. If you and your dog have taken some time off the trail the same idea applies. The difficulty of the trail can also depend on the weather conditions or more broadly the season. Dogs will overheat and become too cold faster and easier than humans so pay attention to the “feel like” temperature, whether you’ll be exposed to direct sun, rain, or high winds.

When you think you’ve found a good match of mileage and elevation for your dog’s fitness level, take a look at the other features of the trail. Are there scrambles? Ladders? Tight squeezes? Are you confident? Are you confident your dog can handle the terrain? If they can’t, are you willing to turn back? Each dog is different and may encounter trail challenges with more or less ease than others. Some hikes may be more challenging for your dog not because of the physical features of the hike, but the amount of traffic. If your dog is not comfortable around other dogs or almost pulls your arm off trying to greet other pups, it’s probably best you choose a moderately or low-trafficked trail.  Does your dog have a bike phobia? Pay attention to other potential users of the trail so you can make the hiking experience enjoyable for you and your dog.

Need help finding the right trail? We recommend checking out our two favorite best hikes with dogs guidebooks:

Safety first.

You probably know what to do if you or someone you know twists their ankle on a hike, but do you know what to do if your dog cuts their paw pad? Bringing a dog on a hike means you’re not only responsible for your safety but for theirs as well. This means not only bringing a first aid kit but including supplies for your dog as well.  If you’re headed to the backcountry you should consider bringing an emergency harness in case you need to carry your dog out. The best way to avoid that kind of emergency situation, however, is to be knowledgeable and prepared for the hazards you could encounter on your hike including snakes, steep cliffs, bears, or extreme temperatures.

Knowing how to prevent accidents starts with having either physical or verbal control over your dog. One of the most often overlooked hazards of hiking with your dog is encounters with other dogs on the trail. As a rule, never let your dog greet an unknown dog without explicit permission from the other owner. Not all dogs are friendly and even those dogs have a right to enjoy the trail if their owner is handling them responsibly. Lastly, make tick checks a regular part of your hiking routine.  Some tick-borne diseases can be transferred to your pet in 10 hours which may not be preventable by prescribed tick preventatives.  

What to pack.

If you’re an avid hiker and gear-head, packing is half the fun! If you’re new, maybe it’s not so much and maybe it’s even stressful or confusing. Packing for a dog is relatively simple. A collar with a tag for identification is the minimum but a harness built for adventure could come in handy. You can find harnesses made for hiking with sturdy connection points for a non-retractable leash and handles for extra control or the ability to lift your dog over small obstacles or up rocks. Just like you, your dog will need water so bring plenty for the two of you in a water bladder and a collapsible bowl for your pup to drink out of. Like any other walk, poop bags are a requirement so you can clean up after yourselves.  Treats or food may be a good idea depending on how long your hike is.  Other gear could be useful or even necessary depending on the conditions like a warm layer, booties, a quick-dry towel, etc. If you’re going somewhere with bear presence, it’s smart to attach a bear bell to your dog’s harness. 

Be a good steward.

As hikers, we should strive to Leave No Trace, and although the goal becomes more complicated when hiking with a dog, it’s still our responsibility. First and foremost, hikers who choose to bring their dogs should always comply with leash laws.  Leashes are not only required to prevent unwanted interactions between dogs and other trail users, they keep wildlife from being harassed and protect fragile habitat from the disturbance of zooming pups. Even when leashing your dog may not be required, think again before unleashing.  No dog should be off-leash that does not have a bomb-proof recall. Some people say, “My dog comes when she’s called. Unless there’s a deer or another dog.” If this is the case, your dog does not come when called and should not be trusted off-leash for both the safety of the dog and out of respect for other trail users and the environment. It goes without saying that when you hike with your dog, you need to pack out when you pack in.

This includes their poo! Nothing ruins a hike like stepping a dog turd left in the trail. It’s a misconception that dog poop can be left because it’s just like “fertilizer.”  Unlike the waste of herbivorous agricultural animals, our dogs’ poop contains harmful levels of phosphorus and nitrogen not to mention bacteria and parasites. It can take up to a year for poop to finally break down, so please do your trail fam a favor and bag the poop. If you don’t want to carry the bag the rest of the hike, then maybe you should have left our pup at home. Some less drastic solutions include tying the poop back to your dog’s harness or putting it in a smell-sealed container like a designated water bottle, or a “poo vault”. After your hike, don’t forget to clean your dog off, checking for seeds and burrs.  Invasive species can travel from site to site through hitchhiking seeds on your gear and your pets. 

Remain flexible.

We love dogs because they live in the moment and remind us to enjoy the simple things in life! This is certainly true on a hike. You may take a detour or find a new trail thanks to your four-legged buddy.  But you also might need to turn around because your dog is too hot.  Always watch your dog for signs of fatigue or injury and listen to your dog when they’re showing you they’ve had enough. Sometimes, your hikes won’t go as planned and when you hike with a dog you have to be okay with that because it isn’t all about you.  That is the amazing part about hiking with a dog though.  It allows you to step outside yourself and see the world through the eyes of an animal, wide with wonder. What are they smelling over there on the westward wind? What creature did they hear in that underground burrow?

Hiking with dogs reminds us to embrace our own wild.  By hiking with dogs responsibly, we can keep our trails wild too. 

    Learn more about the wagging tails saving trails by following our Conservation Dogs team on Instagram.